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Connected Over Centuries

 

Dee Ann Rexroat, '82

 
Old Sem opened in 1853 as an all-purpose building with lodging, dining, classes, chapel, and a library. Today it houses administrative offices.
An art class meets in 1898 on the fourth floor, which was added to the building in 1892 and demolished in the 1924 fire.

One night this fall as I made my way up the hill under a moonlit sky to Old Sem, I thought about the others who have walked this path—Elder George Bowman, William Fletcher King, Harriette Cooke, every president of Cornell, and possibly every student—all of us under the same moon and stars still shining over the college.

Cornell’s very first students walked up this path to Old Sem waving banners. On Nov. 14, 1853, those 100 or so students assembled for a final time in Mount Vernon’s original Methodist church (the college’s temporary home that first fall) and proceeded past the edge of town to the new campus. The Seminary Building, as it was then known, was all-purpose. It provided dining, kitchen, and housing facilities for faculty and students, as well as offices, classrooms, and a chapel. The library consisted of three or four shelves over professor Stephen Fellows’ bed. Samuel Fellows, Stephen’s brother and the college’s first “principal,” lived with his family of four in two rooms measuring 370 square feet. There was no indoor plumbing or electricity.

Today in Old Sem we not only have electricity, we have high-speed Internet access. I can communicate instantly with students across campus and alumni across the world. I can write this story, e-mail it to our designer in Iowa City, and receive the proof via e-mail in less than a day.

I often wonder what has taken place in my second-floor Old Sem corner office during the nearly 150 years of Cornell’s existence. In the early years female students and a preceptress lived on this floor. The corner rooms, such as my office, were recitation rooms. When College Hall opened in 1857, Old Sem became the women’s boarding hall. The women moved into Bowman Hall nearly 30 years later and Old Sem was refitted for chemistry and physics and called Science Hall. A fourth floor was added in 1892 for art classes. It was an academic building until 1959, and since then has housed administrative offices.

Professor emeritus of chemistry Bill Deskin once met with me in my office and mentioned that he liked it. “Why?” I asked, somewhat surprised. He said he taught chemistry in this room during his first years on campus. What other courses have been taught in this corner room? What did the women discuss before retiring for bed here? What was lost here during the Old Sem fire of 1924? What administrative decisions have been made here? What happened in this room during the 1968 Old Sem takeover? I have a vague memory of this room, or a room near it, housing career services when I was a student. Interesting that I have quite literally, found my own career here.

From my desk I look out over the hill, the 19th-century buildings, and perhaps some of the trees beheld by those who lived and worked here before me. Although this room has served many purposes, it has always served a common end: educating young people.

Walking back down the path, with King Chapel’s bells pealing as they have for more than a century, I feel the connectedness. I also sense the great distance we have come since those early all-purpose days. Did our founders dream of what Cornell would become in 150 years? As we near our sesquicentennial in 2003, we press forward with increasing sophistication, mindful of the past that brought us to this hilltop.

 
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